Home     Where exactly is Wuxi     Who is David Scott       Services      Links     Contact

 

Stories with Chinese Idioms*

-by David James Scott,
aka Zale R. Dalen,
aka 大大卫
aka The Man in China

Menu:

Classic Chinese Poems

Stories of History,  Invention and Philosophy

The Source of Chinese Idioms

Children's Poems and Songs

登鹳 雀 楼
(dēng gun qu lu)

Climb Crane Pavilion

李白
(Lǐ Bi)  

Lǐ Bi and "Silent Night Longing"

 
 
 

天衣无缝
(tiān yī w fng)

Heaven Cloth No Seams
揠苗助长
(y mio zh zhǎng)
Pull Shoots Help Grow
刻舟求剑
(k zhōu qi jin) 
Mark Boat Seek Sword
画蛇添足
(hu sh tiānz) 
Draw Snake Add Feet
守株待兔
(shǒu zhū di t)
Guard Tree Wait Rabbit
望梅止渴
(wng mi zhǐ kě)
Anticipate Plum Stop Thirst

胸有成竹
(xiōng yǒu chng zh)

Heart Has Finished Bamboo
自相矛盾
(z xiāng mo dn)
Interacting Spear Shield

 

Childrens' Poems and Songs

乒乓球   
  (pīng pāng  qi)
Ping Pong Ball

  
(xiǎo  huā  gǒu)  
 

Spotted Dog
 

 

登鹳雀楼
(dēng gun qu lu)

 
- 王之涣
             
Wng Zhīhun

 

        白日依山尽
       
bi      r      yī   shān jn

                                 White sun leans mountain side.

        黄 河入海流

                                 hung h  r     hǎi li

                                 Yellow river flows into the sea.

        欲穷千里目

                                y  qing qiān   lǐ m

                                Eyes want to see one thousand li

         更上一层楼

                                   gng shng yī cng lu

                                   More up one floor

This is another poem that is familiar to everybody in China.  It's using climbing the Crane Pavilion as a metaphor for gaining understanding,  for "seeing the big picture".

Story Menu
 

 

 

李白

 中国古代的唐朝出了很多著名的诗人,其中最著名的几位诗人之一是李白。 李白小时候学习很刻苦,年轻时很想为国家做一些事。 但是他不愿意迎合世俗的性格,使他的希望一次又一次破灭了。于是他到处游历, 饮酒写诗, 写了大量赞美祖国大好河山的诗。没有人不知道他的那首《静夜思》:床前明月光, 疑是地上霜。 举头望明月,低头思故乡。

 Lǐ Bi

    In ancient China during the Tang dynasty there were many famous poets.  Among them,  the most famous was Lǐ Bi (also known as Lǐ B).  In Lǐ Bi's childhood he worked hard.  In his youth he wanted to do something for his country.  But because of his character he was not willing to cater to social conventions.  So time after time his hopes were shattered. Therefore,  he travelled everywhere drinking alcohol and writing poems.  He wrote a great number of poems about his beloved homeland.  Everyone in China knows his Silent Night Longing:  "At the end of the bed,  moonlight shines.  Doubt is frost on the ground.  Raise head watch moon.  Bow head yearn for homeland."

 

Note:  It's hard to appreciate this poem in the English translation,  because in the Chinese it has rhyming lines.  There is much ambiguity of meaning.  "Doubt have frost on ground." for example,  could mean "Doubt that the moonlight is frost on the ground." or "Doubt that there is frost on the ground, even though the moonlight makes it look frosty." Also,  低头 (dī tu) the Chinese word for "lower head"  has two meanings - bow head,  and yield or submit.  So it's hard to decide whether to translate 低头思故乡 (dī tu g xiāng) as "Bow head yearn for homeland."  or "Yield to yearning for homeland."  Of course the poetry of the original language holds both meanings.

In any case,  the images are beautiful and evocative, like all classic Chinese poetry.

 

Story Menu
 

 

 

庄子

庄子 是中国古代的哲学家。有一天,他和朋友出去玩儿,看到鱼在水里游来游去。庄子说:你看水里的鱼,多么快乐啊! 朋友说:你也不是鱼,怎么知道鱼的 快乐呢? 庄子说:你也不是我, 怎么知道我不知道鱼的快乐呢?

Zhuangzi and the Happy Fish

    Zhuāngzǐ was an ancient Chinese philosopher.  One day,  he and his friend went out to enjoy the afternoon and saw fish swimming back and forth in a stream.  Zhuāngzǐ   said:  "Look at those fish. How happy they are."   His friend said: "You are not a fish. How do you know they are happy?  Zhuāngzǐ  said: "You are not me.  How do you know I don't know the fish are happy?"

 

Story Menu
 

 

 

鲁班
(Lǔ Bān)

鲁班 是春秋时期 有名的木匠。  有一天,鲁班上山去砍树, 不小心从山上滑了下来, 他赶快抓住了身边的草, 才没有摔下去, 可是手却被草划破了。仔细一看,原来草上长着锯形的齿。 他想, 如果我按照这种草的样子制作一个工具, 一定很锋利,可以割开木头。于是,鲁班按照这个想法发明了锯。  有了锯,木匠锯木头就容易多了。

 Lǔ Bān and The Invention of the Saw

      Lu Ban was a famous carpenter in the Chun Qiu period.  One day he went up the mountain to chop wood.  He wasn't careful going up the mountain and slipped, grabbing at some grass to stop his fall. The grass cut his hand.  He looked carefully at the grass and noticed that it had teeth along its edge.  He thought, if I made a tool with an edge like this grass it certainly would be very sharp and could cut wood.  Based on this idea, Lu Ban invented the saw.  With a saw,  a carpenter can cut wood very easily.

 Story Menu
 

 

 

此地无银三百两
(cǐd w yn sānbǎi liǎng -This Place No Silver Three Hundred Money)

古时候,一个叫张三的人,一年辛辛苦苦到头,积攒下三百两银子。  他怕被别人偷去, 就找来一只木箱, 把银子放在里面, 然后连夜在房后的墙角下挖了一个坑, 把银子埋在了那里。  可是,他还是不放心, 就写了一张 此地无银三百两 的纸条, 贴在墙角。  他的举动被邻居王二 看到了。 半夜, 王二把三百两银子全偷走了。  为了掩人耳目,王二在纸上写了隔壁王二不曾偷 七个字,也贴在了墙角下。

 Three Hundred Pieces of Silver Not Buried Here

     In ancient times,  a man called Zhang San had accumulated three hundred pieces of silver after a year of hard work.  He was worried that his money would be stolen,  so he put it in a wooden box and buried it in his back yard at the corner of his house. This did not completely ease his mind,  so he posted a note on the wall saying:  "Three hundred pieces of silver are not buried here."
     His neighbour,  Wang Er, had noticed the activity in the yard.  At midnight he took all the silver.  In order to deceive Zhang San,  he added a note to the one on the wall saying: "Your neighbour, Wang Er,  did not steal the money." 

Chinese idiom: 此地无银三百两  (cǐd w yn sānbǎi liǎng - literally "this place no silver three hundred money")  Three hundred pieces of Silver aren't buried here. 
Meaning: A clumsy denial resulting in self-exposure.

Note:  This idiom is very unusual in that it is seven characters.  Chinese idioms are almost always four characters.

Story Menu
 

 

 

揠苗助长
(y mio zh zhǎng - Pull Shoots Help Grow )

相传, 古时候有一个农夫。他总觉得自己地里的麦苗长得慢。他等不及了,想出了一个好主意。他来到地里,把地里的每棵禾苗都往高提了一截。到了晚上,他拔完了地里所有的苗,高兴地回到家,对家人说:哎呀,累坏我了,今天我使所有的禾苗都长高了!儿子一听,知道坏事儿了,跑到地里去看,发现所有的麦苗都枯死了!

Pull Shoots Help Growth

     According to legend,  in ancient times there was a farmer who felt that his wheat was growing too slowly.  He couldn't wait any longer,  and had an idea.  He went into his field and pulled each of his wheat shoots higher in the soil.  Happily he went home,  and to his family said:  "Ai ya,  I'm so tired.  Today I pulled on every one of my wheat shoots and made then grow taller."  His son heard this and knew it was a disaster.  He went out to the field and saw that all the young wheat plants had wilted and died.

Chinese idiom: 揠苗助长  ( y mio zh zhǎng - literally "pull shoots help grow " )  
Meaning: Spoiling things with excessive enthusiasm.  Impatience ruining the results.

Story Menu
 

 

 

刻舟求剑
(k zhōu qi jin - Mark Boat Seek Sword)

战国时期,有一个楚国人乘船渡江。船行驶到江心的时候, 一个巨浪打来,他身上佩带的宝剑突然掉到水里去了。 他马上从兜里掏出一把小刀,在宝剑落水的船舷边刻了一个记号。 大家都感到很奇怪,他笑着说: 剑是从这儿掉下去的,我做了记号,一会儿我从这儿下去就可以捞回我的宝剑了。

不一会儿,船靠了岸。那个楚国人就从刻有记号的地方跳了下去。他东摸摸,西摸摸,结果连宝剑的影子也没找到。周围的人看他那副傻样子都哈哈笑起来。

Mark Boat Seek Sword

     During the Zhan guo period (Warring States period 475 B.C. to 221 B.C.), a man from the country of Chu was crossing the Yangtze River when a gigantic wave hit the the boat and the sword he was wearing fell overboard into the water.  Immediately the man pulled out a small knife and made a mark on the side of the boat.  Everybody thought this was very strange, but he smiled and said: "My sword fell into the water where I made this mark.  Now I'll know where to look for it." 
     The boat went to shore.  The man from Chu jumped into the water.  He felt to the east.  He felt to the west.  But not a trace of his sword could he find.  The onlookers watched his efforts and all laughed at him.

Chinese idiom: 刻舟求剑 (k zhōu qi jin - literally "mark boat seek sword") You're marking  a boat.
Meaning: Foolishly taking measures without regard to changing circumstances.

Story Menu

 

 

 

画蛇添足
(hu sh tiānz - Draw Snake Add Feet)

战国时期,楚国有一个大户人家祭祀祖先。 祭礼完毕以后,主人把酒赏赐给手下人喝,一壶酒不够几个人喝的,于是有一个人就提议说,大家比赛画蛇,谁先画好蛇,这壶酒就归谁。其中一个人画好蛇后,拿过酒壶,看看别人还没画好,就得意扬扬地给蛇添了几只脚。  另一个人画好后,夺过酒壶说:蛇本来没有脚,画上脚就不是蛇了。 这酒归我了。说着,就把酒喝了。 

Draw Snake Add Feet

    During the Zhan guo period (Warring States period 475 B.C. to 221 B.C.),  in the country of Chu,  a large household held a ceremony and made a sacrifice in memory of their ancestors.  After the ceremony was completed,  the master of the household gave his servants a jug of wine to thank them for their help.  But there wasn't enough wine for all the servants.  One of them proposed that they should all draw a picture of a snake.  The one who finished a good picture first would get the wine.
     One of the servants finished a good drawing.  He looked around and saw that the others had not finished,  so he triumphantly seized the jug of wine and then added feet to his snake.  When one of the other servants finished his drawing, he said: "It's a general rule that snakes do not have feet,  so that isn't a snake."  Having said this,  he snatched the wine back and drank it down.

Chinese idiom: 画蛇添足 ( hu sh tiānz - literally "draw snake add feet." ) You're adding feet to a snake.
Meaning: You are doing unnecessary work that is ruining your result.  (very useful when students use unnecessary phrases in a composition,  generally speaking.)

Story Menu

 

 

 

待兔
(shǒu zhū di t - Guard Tree Wait Rabbit)

春秋时期宋国有个农民。他的田里长了一棵树, 平常干活累了, 他就躺在树下休息。 一天,他正在田里耕种,忽然看见一 只兔子 惊慌地跑了过来, 一下子撞倒了树桩上,死了。 农民没费吹灰之力就得到了一只兔子,心里十分高兴,拎起兔子回家美美地吃了一顿。

从此,这个农民就再也不干农活了,整天守在树桩旁边,等着兔子跑过来撞死在树桩上。 可是他再也没有遇到这样的好事, 发而把田里的庄稼全都荒废了。

 Guarding the Tree Awaiting a Rabbit

      In the country of Song during the Chun Qui period (literally "Spring Fall period" 770 to 476 B.C.),  there lived a farmer who had a tree in his field.  Whenever he was tired from working,  he would rest under the tree. 
     On day he was tilling his field.  Suddenly a panic stricken rabbit ran past him, crashed into the tree and killed itself.  The farmer caught it with less effort than it takes to blow ashes. He was very happy to take it home for a delicious rabbit stew dinner.
    From then on,  he did no work in his field.  He waited by his tree for another rabbit to run into it and kill itself.  This didn't happen,  and his fields lay fallow and bare.

Chinese idiom: 守 株待兔 (shǒu zhū di t - literally "guard tree wait rabbit" ) You're waiting for a rabbit.
Meaning: Foolishly waiting for a most unlikely windfall instead of doing any work.

Story Menu

 

 

 

望梅止渴
(wng mi zhǐ kě - Anticipate Plum Stop Thirst)

      有一年夏天,曹操率兵远征。那天骄阳似 火,酷热难当,附近却找不到水源。士兵们口渴难耐,行军速度也慢了下来甚至有人中暑晕倒在路边。曹操 看在眼里,急在心里,担心贻误战机。
     这时,他想到一个主意, 骑马赶到队伍前,用马鞭指着前方说道:有一大片梅林,那里的梅子熟了,  好吃又解渴。将士们一听有酸甜可口的梅子, 都不 禁流出了口水,士气大振。曹操趁机命令军队全速前进,很快就走出困境,顺利抵达前方营地。

Anticipate Plums Stop Thirst

     One summer day,  Commander CaoCao,  a famous general during the San Dynasty, was on a distant campaign.  On that particular day the sun was blazing hot.  Nobody knew where they could find water.  The soldiers were thirsty.  They dragged their feet and their marching slowed to a crawl.  Some even collapsed from heat stroke,  falling unconscious on the road.  CaoCao saw this and worried about losing the coming battle.

     Then he had an idea.  He galloped his horse to catch up with the head of the column and pointed with his whip, saying: "There is a big plum forest ahead.  The plums are ripe, delicious and thirst quenching."  Hearing about the sweet plums made the soldiers mouths water.  Their morale improved.  CaoCao seized his chance and ordered his army forward at full speed.  Quickly they marched to the battle ground, arriving in good spirits.

Chinese idiom:  望梅止渴 (wng mi zhǐ kě - literally "anticipate plum stop thirst") Thinking of plums makes your mouth water and stops thirst.
Meaning: Living on fancies.  Living on hope.

 

Story Menu
 

 

胸有成竹
(xiōng yǒu chng zh)

 

北宋时有一位学者叫文同, 他很喜欢竹子, 经常在竹林中散步, 仔细观察竹子生长的情况, 枝叶伸展的姿态, 竹笋成长的细节以及在四季中的变化。 他对竹子非常熟悉, 闭上眼都能想出竹子的样子, 一有时间就在家里画竹。 他画的竹子远近闻名, 许多人从很远的地方赶来请他画竹。 晁补之是文同的知心朋友, 常和文同喝酒赏竹, 最爱看他画竹。  有一位年轻人想问文同学习画竹, 先向晁补之请教文同画竹的秘诀,晁补之说:当他画竹的, 心里已经有竹的影子了, 这就是他独到的地方。

Heart Has Completed Bamboo

     During the Northern Song Dynasty there lived a scholar named Wen Tong.  He was very fond of bamboo.  Often he would walk in the bamboo forest,  carefully observing the way the bamboo grew,  noting the way the branches and leaves stretched from the trunk and the details of growth during the four changing seasons.  He became very familiar with bamboo.  Closing his eyes he could imagine what the bamboo looked like.  At home he would draw the bamboo.  Wen Tong's drawings of bamboo became known far and wide.  Many people came great distances to ask him to draw bamboo. 
     Chao Buzhi was Wen Tong's closest friend.  Often he and Wen Tong would drink wine and appreciate bamboo.  Chao Buzhi's greatest pleasure was to watch his friend Wen Tong draw bamboo. 
     There was a young man who wanted to learn how to draw bamboo
like Wen Tong.  He asked Chao Buzhi to tell him Wen Tong's secret.  Chao Buzhi said:  "When he draws bamboo,  it's already traced in his heart.  This is his unique talent."

Idiom:  胸有成竹(xiōng yǒu chng zh - literally: heart has finished bamboo)
Meaning: Have a well thought out plan.  Know what you intend to accomplish before you
                begin.

 Example:  他对高考做了充分准备,胸有成竹。
          tā du gāo kǎo zu le chōng fn zhǔn bixiōng yǒu chng zh

                  She is well prepared for the college entrance examination,  heart has 
                  completed bamboo (as if she's already written it).

                  Story Menu
 

 

 

天衣无缝
(tiān yī w fng)

从前, 有一个叫郭翰的人, 因为夏天天热, 在屋子里无法入睡, 就到院子里去睡觉。 躺下不久,正看着天空, 忽然看见一个白衣女子从空中慢慢飘流下来, 对郭翰说:我是天上的织女。郭翰看着这个女子,发现他的衣服全身无缝, 觉得很奇怪,就问她:你的衣服怎么没有缝呢? 女子回答:天上神仙的衣服,不是用针线缝出来的, 怎么会有缝呢?

 Heavenly Clothing No Seams

     Long ago, there lived a man named Guo Han.  It was a hot summer.  He couldn't fall asleep in his bedroom, so he went into the yard to sleep.  Not long after he lay down he saw a woman dressed in white floating down from the sky.  She said to him: "I am the celestial weaver." 
     Looking at her Guo Han noticed  that there were no seams in her garments.  He thought this was very strange.  He asked her: "Why are there no seams in your clothes?"
     She answered: "The garments of the immortals  are not made with a needle and thread.  How would they have seams?"

Idiom:  天衣无缝 (tiān yī w fng - literally: heaven clothing no seams)
Meaning: Flawless.

 Example:  他的写作天衣无缝
         
tā de xiě zu tiān yī w fng

                       His handwriting is heaven clothing no seams (flawless).

 

Story Menu

 

 

 

自相矛盾
(z xiāng mo dn - Interacting Spear Shield)
 

古代楚国有一个摆摊卖兵器的人。 一天,他到 街上去卖矛和盾。 他举起一个盾,向围观的人说:我的盾是世界上最坚固的盾,无论多么尖锐的东西也刺不穿它 。接着,他又举起了矛,说:我的矛是天下最锐利的矛,什么坚固的东 西都能刺破。

围观的人听了觉得很好笑,其中一个人就问他:那么,如果拿你的矛去刺你的盾,会什么样?

卖兵器的人没法回答,灰溜溜得走了。

The Interacting Spear and Shield

In the ancient country of Chu there was a weapons merchant with a small shop in the market.  One day he went into the street to sell some spears and shields.  He held up a shield and said to the crowd gathered around him, "This is the toughest shield in the world.  Nothing,  no matter how sharp,  can ever penetrate it."

Then he held up a spear,  and said: "This is the sharpest spear under heaven.  No matter how tough something is,  this spear can slice right through it."

The onlookers heard this and laughed.  One of them asked him, "Well then, if your spear is thrust at your shield, what happens?"

The weapons dealer had no answer,  and left looking discouraged.

Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾 (z xiāng mo dn - literally "interacting spear shield" ) You're selling a spear and shield.
Meaning: Making a contradictory statement or claiming the impossible.

Story Menu

 

 

 


(zǐyuē  Confucius said)

曰:学而时习之不亦 悦乎

 朋 自远方来,不亦乐乎?

 不知, 君子 乎?

Master said: 
Learn and at due time to report what one had learned,  is that not after all pleasure? 
Have friends come from a far,  is that not also a pleasure?
Person not recognized but not bitter,  is that not after all a gentleman?

 

Note:  I almost included this with the children's stories,  because all the school children in China learn it,  and recite it every morning.

 

Story Menu

 

 

 

乒乓球
(pīng pāng qi)

 

乒乓球,跑 过 去
  pīng pāng  qi,              pǎo         gu         q,

球拍让球找球台。
   qi   pāi    rng  qi        zhǎo   qi    ti

 球台让球找球拍
   qi     ti    rng  qi      zhǎo  qi  pāi

都喊小球快快来。
  dōu   hǎn   xiǎo    qi     kui    kui   li

小球碰球拍,
  xiǎo   qi   png    qi    pāi

球拍让球找球台。
  qi      pāi     rn    qi     zhǎo  qi    ti.

 

Story Menu

 

 

 


xiǎo  huā  gǒu  

啃骨头
xiǎo  huā  gǒu  i   kěn  gǔ  tou
Small flower dog (spotted puppy) loved chew bone


kěn  wn  gǔ   tou  tǔ  sh  tou
finished chewing stuck out tongue

吐吐 舌头
     sh  tou  tiǎn  gǔ tou  
lap lap tongue lick bone

骨头  碰 舌头
gǔ tou  png png gǒu sh tou
bone bump bumps puppy tongue

 

Note:  It really is better when you read the Chinese out loud and ignore the English translation.

Story Menu

 

 

 

 

Story Menu

 

Top of Page

The Man in China Home

 

*The stories in this selection come from traditional Chinese tales,  as introduced to us by our Chinese teacher,  William.  The translations are my own.

I have several reference books from which I have learned what I know about reading Chinese characters.  Anytime I am quoting one of them directly,  I'll try to give credit where credit is due.  The one I use most often is actually software installed on this computer.  It's amazing,  and allows me to have instant translations of English into Chinese with both the character and the pinyin pronunciation guide.  In addition I can use it to look up characters I don't know by searching the radicals ,  find combinations of characters that form words (listed by most common), and get historical information about character origins and evolution.  It's fabulous software folks,  and if you can find it someplace it's worth whatever you pay for it.

Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese version 3.0 Copyright [c] 1997 - 2002 the Wenlin Institute
ABC Chinese - English dictionary edited by John DeFrancis Copyright [c] 1996 - 2002 the University of Hawai'i.

In addition I have a stack of books for learning Chinese:

The one that I get much of my background information from is "A Key to Chinese Speech and Writing" by Jol Ballassen (University of Paris 7) with the Collaboration of  Zhang Pengpeng (Beijing Language and Culture University) and Christian Artuso (Translator) published by Sinolingua,  Beijing  ISBN 7-80052-507-4

I'm also regularly dipping into "The New Age Concise Chinese - English Dictionary" published by The Commercial Press.  Chief Editor,  Pan Shaozhong ISBN 7 -100-03448-5/H-878